Buyers Guide: Choosing the Perfect Baselayer

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Sure, base layers may not have the cool factor of a new ski jacket or set of powder skis, but you could make the argument that they're just as crucial to making sure you have a great day on the hill.

Why? Because base layers are the first layer of defense (literally) between winter weather and your skin. A good base layer will help you stay not just dryer, but also warmer, and warm muscles always perform better (and being warm all day is far more pleasant than shivering in the snow after 30 minutes outdoors.)

So, if you've been finding yourself getting a little chilly or feeling a little too sweaty while skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or otherwise playing in the snow, read on to see if your base layers are the problem – and learn how to fix the issue.

How do base layers work?

Even if you don't like wearing tight clothing, your base layers need to have a slim fit (for both men and women.) Base layers act as a second skin, and fortunately, that second skin is far better equipped to deal with cold weather than your actual skin is. But that's why they need to be fitted – they won't work nearly as well if cold air gets between the base layer and your skin.

Base layers serve two primary purposes: first, they trap your body heat and keep that heat trapped against your skin. That's why sometimes you may feel quite cold in the car, but once you've skied a lap or two, you're quite warm: your body is generating heat, and your clothing is reflecting it back to you.

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But base layers also have a second essential purpose: moisture management. If you sweat, you want that moisture to be pulled away from your skin as soon as possible. You lose warmth far faster when you're wet, so as soon as your perspiration cools down (which it will when you stop or come in contact with cool air), you're going to get cold quickly. A Princeton University Hypothermia Study found that you cool down as much as 25 times faster when you're wet, so moisture management is extremely important. That's also another reason why your base layers need to be snug: so perspiration gets absorbed directly into the base layer.

The next step in the process is for the base layer to quickly remove that moisture, either by being quick-drying or drawing it outwards towards your next layer.

Various Materials:

Once you know how base layers work, it's pretty easy to figure out which materials work best. You don't want your base layer to take a long time to dry or be so ill-fitting that it hangs off your body. (That's why base layers are always very stretchy.)

When it comes to materials, it can be summed up in three words: don't wear cotton. So if you've been wearing your standard long underwear as a base layer and still feeling cold, that's likely why. Some base layers can have a small percentage of cotton, but pure cotton dries slowly and breathes poorly. You don't want cotton layers in your ski ensemble (and yes, that goes for socks, beanies, gloves, and more.)

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Base layers will either be synthetic materials or natural materials. If it's the latter, likely, it's mostly Merino wool or a blend of comparable wool. That's because Merino wool comes from Merino sheep, who are well-suited for outdoor living in various conditions. Their thick coats insulate them in the winter, help cool them in the summer, and ensure proper airflow to regulate their body temperature in changing conditions. That's exactly what humans need on the slopes, so Merino wool fabrics are an excellent choice for base layers.

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The only other thing to keep in mind with fabrics is the feel. Some people have more sensitive skin than others, and you may find that some fabrics are a bit itchy for all-day wear. If you like soft clothing, look for base layer items made with very fine fibers or one that's a blend of both natural wool and synthetic fibers. You can also look for base layers with flat-lock stitching, which means the seams are flat to prevent rubbing on your skin.

How to Fit a Base Layer

Base layers should be tight – way together than anything else in your wardrobe. So be sure to take a look at the size chart for whatever item you're buying, as it may be different from your standard size.

Unfortunately, since base layers need to fit snuggly, you can't just size up if you need a taller fit or size down if you have short legs. You'll want to find one made for your body type to ensure it fits everywhere. Fortunately, there are so many base layers on the market that you likely won't have trouble finding a good fit. Make sure it fits snuggly without being too tight. If it's chaffing or at all restricting your movement, it's probably a bit too snug. Many base layers come in sizes up to two and 3XL, so play around with different brands to find one you like (and if you find it, buy two!)

Hot Chillys Retro Chamois Men's Baselayer

Other Considerations:

Once you've figured out the basics – how base layers work, what materials to choose, and how to get the correct fit – the only other major consideration is the thickness, which generally translates to warmth. Most base layers will offer a warmth rating, indicating where the fabric's thickness falls in relation to other items from the brand, which can help if you ski in very cold conditions or know you only need a bit of extra warmth. If you're buying a pair for everyday use, opt for something in the middle of the warmth spectrum. Remember to consider what else you wear skiing – if you have heavily insulated ski pants, you can probably go a little lighter on the base layer. Conversely, if your favorite ski jacket is just a shell, you'll likely want a more substantial layer on top. Most base layers don't have hoods as your mid or outer layers probably already have them.

Finding a Baselayer Top

The most common options you'll find on base layer tops are ¼-length zippers (a great option if you tend to overheat) and thumbholes, which can help ensure your sleeves don't get bunched up under your other layers. 

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Finding a Baselayer Bottom

Base layer bottoms usually come in full-length and three-fourth length, which can be a good option for shorter skiers or people who don't want their base layers to extend under the ski boots. You can also find different rises; high-rise base layers can be great for keeping snow off your low back and avoiding bulk around your waist. You could even rock a full-body baselayer if you tend to get really cold (or fall often.)

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And that’s the basics of base layers. Though their technology isn’t as complicated or varied as outerwear, they’re still extremely important, especially for all-day skiers and riders who go through several cycles of sweating and cooling down. Having the right base layer can make or break your day on the hill, so make sure to try on a variety of combinations to find the tops and bottoms you like best.